The Rationality of Voters and Voting

A discussion is brewing around the economists’ side of the blogosphere over the related questions of whether or not it is truly rational to vote, and whether or not voters are well-informed enough to cast rational ballots (assuming they make it to the polling place to begin with).

Andrew Gelman and Ilya Somin contribute their ripostes to the conventional wisdom (going back to Downs) that voting is irrational due to the relatively small payoffs and large costs involved; theirs are not the first, and I dare say are unlikely to be the last, efforts to reconcile rational choice theory with reality.

Rational choice theory, however, does provide a better explanation of another phenomenon: the low levels of political knowledge observed within democratic publics, a phenomenon that is not by any means limited to American voters. On this question, economist Bryan Caplan makes a rather provocative–although to my mind unsatisfactory–argument at Cato Unbound:

There’s an election tomorrow. Do voters know what they’re doing? According to the typical economist — and many political scientists — the answer is “No, but it doesn’t matter.” How could it not matter? The main argument is that the public’s errors cancel out. For example, some people underestimate the benefits of immigration, and others overestimate the benefits. But as long as the average voter’s belief is true, politicians win by promoting immigration policies based on the facts.

This story is clearly comforting, but is it correct? Are the average voter’s beliefs true? In The Myth of the Rational Voter, my forthcoming book with Princeton University Press, I review a large body of evidence and conclude that the answer is definitely no. Like moths to the flame, voters gravitate to the same mistakes. They do not cancel each other out; they compound. …

So what remedies for voter irrationality would I propose? Above all, relying less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets. By and large, we don’t even ask voters whether we should allow unpopular speech or religion, and this “elitist” practice has saved us a world of trouble. Why not take more issues off the agenda? Even if the free market does a mediocre job, the relevant question is not whether smart, well-meaning regulation would be better. The relevant question is whether the kind of regulation that appeals to the majority would be better.

Another way to deal with voter irrationality is institutional reform. Imagine, for example, if the Council of Economic Advisers, in the spirit of the Supreme Court, had the power to invalidate legislation as “uneconomical.” Similarly, since the data show that well-educated voters hold more sensible policy views, we could emulate pre-1949 Great Britain by giving college graduates an extra vote.

Aside from the thoroughly elitist nature of Caplan’s proposed reforms, they have already been tried during the Supreme Court’s substantive due process era during the late 19th and early 20th centuries–and rejected as being inconsistent with American democracy. For whatever reason, the public has in the modern era been much more willing to grant more latitude to the Supreme Court to protect “civil” rights and liberties while rejecting the Court’s attempts to restrict government meddling in the market economy. A Caplan-empowered Council of Economic Advisors could easily find itself on the wrong side of public opinion, just as the Supreme Court did as it (consistent with free market principles) struck down elements of the New Deal in the 1930s, and would find itself an equally tempting target for politicized appointments and politicians’ venom.

Ironically, on the other side of the pond we can find a government structure that more accurately fulfills Caplan’s wishes: the European Union. The EU’s approach works in spite of democracy–and, as European governments and publics have demanded more accountability for the technocrats who formulate and enforce EU-wide free market economic policies to the European Parliament and national legislatures, we are likely to see more drift toward “irrational” economic policies that nonetheless are more appealing to mass publics.

The (more traditional) take of The Economist‘s new Democracy in America blog is also worth a read.

UPDATE (James Joyner): Christopher Hitchens weighs in on the subject, too.

I live in the nation’s capital, which isn’t allowed representatives in Congress, so the nearest race that concerns me is in neighbouring Virginia.Here, a rich menu of issues confronts the electorate. The incumbent senator, George Allen, a Republican, was considered until recently to be a safe bet for re-election and a possible standard bearer for his party in two years’ time. Now he is in the deepest of trouble because — let me see if I have this right — he isn’t “really” from the South, wears cowboy boots though there are no cowboys in Virginia, made a cryptic remark to a questioner from the Indian sub-continent and reacted oddly to the news of his mother’s hidden Jewish parentage.

These are the issues that the pundits are squabbling over, yet this race is taking place in a state where the military adds $34 billion to the economy annually and employs more than 208,000 Virginians, according to the state commission. Ninety-three residents have been killed while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not to mention that Democratic challenger James Webb, a Vietnam vet and former Secretary of the Navy, contends that US troops should pull out of Iraq and fight the war from neighbouring countries.

Most reasonable people would predict that US foreign policy would be an important issue in this race. They’d be wrong. Yes, I assure the polite BBC man. If you give me some extra airtime I can indeed explain all this. I can also elucidate the significance of the combat boots worn by Webb: boots apparently worn in solidarity with his son, who’s serving in Iraq. They appear to have turned the tide against non-existent cowboys.

So it goes, unfortunately. That said, these seemingly trivial “issues” are usually proxies for things which are genuinely important like character. Sadly, both Webb and Allen have gone down in the public esteem as a result of this campaign, something likely true in many other tight races.

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Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.